by George Brahm
It has become almost indisputable that the typical humanities university student of today has become incapable of tolerating ideas and opinions that are contrary to theirs. Any dissenting idea is viewed as a threat of harm and is responded to accordingly; whether it involves blasting air horns and screaming expletives at professors, spitting on guest speakers, or preventing a planned event from taking place using commercial-grade fireworks and Molotov cocktails, ideologically-driven student groups are determined to use any means necessary to shut down the vocalization of views they deem offensive. Given the massive disparity in numbers between left-leaning and conservative faculty members (according to a Higher Education Research Institute study, only 12% of university faculty identify as right-of-center, with the numbers dropping even further in the humanities) indicating a disparity in hiring practices on the part of the university administrations, it is not surprising that these student groups, which are often on the far-left ideologically, get their way on most university campuses. Even in the instances that conservative student groups are allowed to run their events, they are charged exorbitant amounts in ‘security fees’ to supposedly cover for the protection of a speaker in what is supposed to be an institution for the free exchange of ideas.
As a conservative myself, I am unwilling to deny that my side has occasionally been guilty of attempting to suppress the free speech of views that it dislikes, albeit with an almost infinitesimally low chance of success. Take, for instance, the recent case of Randa Jarrar, a creative writing instructor at California State University, Fresno, who took to Twitter to label the late Barbara Bush an “amazing racist” and a “witch”, before wishing that the entire Bush family meets their end soon. Fresno State denounced her statements as going against the ‘core values’ of the university, but agreed that her comments were made in her capacity as a private citizen and were not professional statements made as an employee of the school; hence, her tweets were considered protected free speech under the First Amendment and she would not be fired over them. While many conservative commentators including Ben Shapiro and David French supported this decision, there were other conservatives who expressed their dissent and demanded that Jarrar be fired. Some argued using reciprocity; they said that since the left had refused to respect the free speech rights of those on the right, the right had no obligation to respect the free speech rights of those on the left. As one conservative commentator put it, “My support of your rights is directly linked to your support of mine.” Such backlash resulted in the posting of a petition demanding that Jarrar be fired by Fresno State; a petition that has garnered approximately 90,000 signatures at the date of writing.
Thus, it is evident that both sides of the political spectrum are capable of being intolerant of views put forward by the other. Individuals on both ends are also equally willing to tolerate the suppression of views coming from the opposing side, although with a great disparity in the rate of success, given that the left dominates university administrations, which includes the people who are the ones who make the decision whether or not to take action upon the individual in question. But the lack of success is not an excuse for at least some conservatives calling for an individual to be fired for publicly airing her views, however disgusting as those views are.
If the left and the right attempt to one-up each other on the stifling of free speech, we are going to be locked up in a cycle of intolerance where the free exchange of ideas will be restricted further and further until it ceases to be a reality. At the moment, left-leaning individuals in academia seem to hold most of the power, so they can successfully stifle free speech if they wish to do so. However, if the conservatives manage to take the reins any time in the future and they come in with the same attitude of not tolerating opposing viewpoints, they too will stifle free speech of those on the left, and this can continue ad nauseam.The only way to break this cycle is for both sides to accept the position of free speech absolutism; a position which holds that all speech is protected free speech, with very few and obvious exceptions like speech that is solely for the purpose of inciting “imminent lawless action” or violence or speech that deliberately includes unequivocally false statements of facts to slander another individual.
Upon adopting this position, both sides will be capable of freely articulating their views and ideas, allowing them to be thrown into the marketplace of ideas to be debated upon and critiqued. Proponents of ideas will be able to both present their ideas and defend them against attacks; opponents of these very ideas will be able to reject them for justified reasons, and not simply because they feel offended by them. When one side is exposed to a reasoned defense of the other side’s position, it is possible that they will realize that their opponents do have valid and justified reasons to hold the positions that they do, instead of blindly believing the caricatures that they have been given about their opponents so far. Proponents of ideas will also be forced to think about the rational grounds of their own beliefs, rather than holding it for the sake of emotional satisfaction.
But implementing such a system is easier said than done. It is not going to be easy to get university administrations or tenured professors to become less biased or at least give a fair opportunity for the airing of views that are diametrically opposed to theirs. I believe, however, that there is a way that we can bring about lasting change to our university system; a way that implements this change from the bottom-up, that is, starting from the students themselves, rather than the university administration. I first suggested this method in an academic paper I wrote in 2017, and will present it below in a similar manner.
As is commonly understood, the function of the government is to protect the rights of its citizens. Hence, it follows that it is also the duty of the government to take positive steps towards ensuring that free speech is protected in universities, particularly the universities that are funded by the government itself. While the government cannot interfere in the everyday activities of the university system to ensure that a healthy climate of dialogue and debate is maintained, it can play a role in changing the attitudes of the students towards opposing ideas during the transition between high school and university, encourage critical thinking, and ensure that only students who are capable of such thinking be allowed into universities in the first place. This can be done through a government-mandated pre-university preparatory program that is run by the state or provincial governments, the skeletal structure of which I have designed and laid out below. It will be mandatory for every student who graduates high school and plans to go to university (not students who go to trade school). Final acceptance into any university will be contingent on the student successfully completing this program.
The program will last for approximately two months; the months of July and August are when most students are home for the summer. On the first day of the program, all students enrolled will be given a question sheet that asks them questions about their individual views on matters of religion, culture, politics, and ethics. After completion, the questionnaires will be reviewed by administrators, and students will be sorted out into different groups on the basis of their beliefs as represented in the questionnaire, before each of them are paired with another student who holds views that are directly opposed to theirs. For example, a left-leaning progressive and atheistic student will be paired with a right-leaning orthodox Christian student, while a student who believes in a relativistic view of morality will be paired with a student who views morality as objective. Throughout the two month program, each student will work with their assigned partners in completing their assigned tasks, which can include doing readings together, writing papers together, and engaging in interactive discussions.
The curriculum of this program must include, but must not be restricted to, areas like political, religious, and moral philosophy, and basic economics. The students will be introduced to the works of thinkers on all sides of the debate in each of these fields; for instance, in moral philosophy, the students will be assigned readings from the works of deontologists like Immanuel Kant, consequentialists like John Stuart Mill, virtue ethicists like Aristotle, natural law theorists like Thomas Aquinas, and divine command theorists like Augustine and Robert Merrihew Adams. Students will also have to read arguments on both sides of issues like abortion, euthanasia, stem-cell research, etc. Similarly, in religious philosophy, students will be made to read the works of theistic philosophers like Anselm, Aquinas, Reid, Plantinga, and Craig, while also having to read the works of atheistic philosophers including Hume, Voltaire, Nietzsche, Russell, and Mackie.
After completing every reading, the pair will be made to discuss the issue being debated with each other, having to delineate their own arguments for why they chose a particular position on the issue under discussion. Following the discussion, every student will have to write a paper of approximately 500 words, explaining his partner’s position in the most faithful and charitable way possible, expounding on the positives in his partner’s argument, and also addressing the weaknesses in it that lead the student to reject it as a nonviable solution to the issue. This will force the student to put himself in his partner’s shoes and think like his partner thinks, making him realize that his partner has good and justified reasons to hold to the views that he does. The final paper to successfully complete the course will be based on a controversial moral/ethical/political/religious problem that was not discussed during the duration of the course, and the student will have to write both how he would respond to it and how his partner would have responded to it, noting down the strengths and the weaknesses of each position, and addressing any other responses that could be given to the problem. The paper will be judged on the breadth of thinking that is applied and the student’s ability to present the content in a manner that is both unbiased and critical.
How will this preparatory program help the universities to become havens for free speech? The program will play a major role in exposing the high school graduate to a viewpoint that is contrary to the one he has held for so long. The student will soon grow to realize that their counterparts on the other side of the debate do not hold to their particular positions because they are horrible, bigoted people, but because they genuinely believe that their views will make the world a better place. They will also be forced to dig into their own views to find good, rational grounds for continuing to hold onto their beliefs when they are forced to be prepared to defend their own position against the criticisms that their partner brings against them. Furthermore, the mandatory nature of this program as enforced by the provincial or state governments will ensure that students will have to respond in a civilized fashion when exposed to a contrary worldview, instead of responding with outrage and violence. Finally, students will also stop seeing the views on the opposite side through the caricatures that they have been presented throughout their lives, for they will have to write well-reasoned arguments to defend their opponents’ views, exercising their critical thinking skills in this manner, and thus having to realize that there are rational ways to defend an intellectual position that is opposed to yours.
There are those who might object to the mandatory nature of this program and my stating that anyone who fails to complete this program should not be allowed to go to university. I stand by this statement. My aim is not to prevent individuals from attending university, but to preserve the climate of debate, discourse, tolerance, and viewpoint diversity that our universities used to be known for. The program that I have designed will either turn intolerant individuals into rational individuals who think critically, or will dissuade them entirely from going to university in the first place. After all, from the time of the ancients, universities were always meant to be places for open discourse and debate, and places that shunned dogmatism and intolerance. Going to university assuming that you are only going to get your own views reinforced and never be exposed to any other view is an absolute waste of the tens of thousands of dollars that you or your parents invest into your education; for you are going to university expecting the university to do what is diametrically opposed to the purpose for which it was established in the first place! Thus, my program acting as a filter to those who lack the critical thinking skills to attend a university is not a discriminatory result; rather, it both helps them save money and helps preserve the required intellectual climate at universities.
Once the government enforces this preparatory program, students who enter universities will enter with a mind that is far more open to new ideas and experiences than when they were in high school. They will be more open to dialogue and debate regarding views that they disagree with, and the shutting down of dissenting views using methods of outrage will begin to cease. These students will have a university experience that is congruent with what an ideal university experience ought to be. Soon, they will replace the individuals at the helm and themselves will become the professors and administrators, continuing to work in their new capacity to foster an environment of free inquiry and debate. When this happens, we will have finally broken out of that vicious cycle of viewpoint intolerance.
This, then, is how we can restore free speech absolutism as a fundamental cornerstone of our intellectual sphere. Nonetheless, we must also remember that free speech comes at a cost; because not all free speech is right speech. It is up to us to do a cost-benefit analysis of free speech. Free speech forces us to listen to white supremacists and watch neo-Nazi marches, but it also gave us the suffragette movement and the Civil Rights movement. Free speech forces us to risk the vocalization of pernicious ideologies, but it also allows us to recognize the human capacity to come up with these ideologies. Free speech will expose you to ideas that offend you and shake you to your core, but it will also enhance your critical thinking skills, allow you understand your opponent’s thought process, and provide you with an opportunity to formulate a response, not just for this circumstance but for any similar encounter in the future. In the same manner, a university that embraces free speech absolutism will expose its students to as many viewpoints as possible; when the student graduates, they will understand the viewpoints of conservatism and liberalism; of theism and atheism; of capitalism and socialism; and of various other opposing schools of thought in politics and philosophy. Through this exposure to ideas, they will learn to choose their own lenses to view the world on the basis of their merits and not on the basis of their emotional reactions to their contents. They will be able-minded citizens who are prepared to face the outside world, rather than coddled, entitled, and infantile imbeciles who are unable to tolerate opposing worldviews. This upshot of free speech outweighs any of its possible costs.
It is for this reason that I believe that every member of society, regardless of political preferences, must be a free speech absolutist.
6 thoughts on “Reinstating Free Speech Absolutism in Our University”
It is an interesting proposal with some interesting academic exercises…but wouldn’t it be simpler and cheaper for everyone concerned for University administrators and governors to set aside the game-playing and simply commit to the higher quality of education that results from free speech within a category-diverse institution?
@Eric: It’s a great idea, but how would you convince them to do that?
I’d probably start by organizing the students and other tuition payers, a group that might or might not be a majority of the students at the university, to send a collective message that undermining the quality of the education received will not be tolerated.
@Eric: It’s a great idea, but how would you convince them to do that?